I've been curious about this title ever since the folks at Angry Robot Books told me about it. Lee Battersby's The Corpse-Rat King supposedly defies categorisation. I'm told that it is something with the deft voice of K.J. Parker and the wry humour of Joe Abercrombie, wrapped up in a rather fabulous low-fantasy setting that begs further exploration. For more info about this title: Canada, USA, Europe.
You can visit Lee Battersby's official website here.
Here's the blurb:
Marius dos Hellespont and his apprentice, Gerd, are professional looters of battlefields. When they stumble upon the corpse of the King of Scorby and Gerd is killed, Marius is mistaken for the monarch by one of the dead soldiers and is transported down to the Kingdom of the Dead.
Just like the living citizens, the dead need a King - after all, the King is God’s representative, and someone needs to remind God where they are. And so it comes to pass that Marius is banished to the surface with one message: if he wants to recover his life he must find the dead a King. Which he fully intends to do.
Just as soon as he stops running away.
There are some objects in the universe so large, so immense, that they bend the laws of physics to suit themselves. Smaller things, even if they are themselves of such a size as to stagger the imagination, are caught within their gravitational pull, never to be released, and what does manage to escape is either too small to be noticed, or so broken and destroyed as to be useless. Philosophers in the King’s palace had recently announced that the planets orbited the sun in this way, and that light, a substance so large and all-encompassing that it covered the earth like a blanket, was actually held in thrall to the spinning of our own planetary surface. No matter how large, or powerful, there is always something bigger that will suck you in, slave you to its movement, and make you a mere satellite.
Borgho City was such a place.
It is said that wherever a King resides lies the governance of a country, but wherever the largest river meets the sea lies the true power. Borgho City squatted over the largest delta at the mouth of the largest river in the largest country on the continent, and whatever power was held within her massive stone walls was as twisted and incomprehensible as the street system that had grown up over the decades of occupation. Its walls, it was said, had exhausted quarries as far away as the Penate Mountains. In fact, most of the walls were made of rammed earth, deposited in vast hills when the first harbour had been dredged from the silt and sand of the delta mouth, but Borgho City had grown so big that truth and memory were only two of its satellites. A mile from the city walls the road Marius was on crested a rise, before plummeting down towards the nearest gate. Marius paused as he reached the top, found a nearby lump in the surrounding ground, and sat down to watch the traffic as it approached the entrance.
Foolish men, such as those who never have to leave a city, will tell you that the walls surrounding it, and the guards who man them, exist to defend the city from its enemies- to provide a barrier between the riches within and the covetous, barbarian masses without. Wise men know that this is nonsense. Walls exist to contain gates, and soldiers exist that they may stand next to those gates and demand tribute from anyone wishing to enter. Outsiders desire entrance, guards exact a levee, and then spend it on booze, women, and gambling. If they’re good, Gods-fearing men. If not, well, there are a million ways to part a guard and his money, and not all of them have to be approved by a majority of the churches to be fun. Thus the economy is kept vibrant, money moves in the right directions, taxes are manageable, and the whole system runs along as smoothly as a slaughterhouse production line. The truly wise, amongst whom you can count guards, guards mistresses’ and those who didn’t learn their lesson the first time they tried to get into a city, know the truth: there are a million ways to part a guard and his money, so to a guard, money is a useless and transitory thing. If you really want to get into a city unscathed, that is, with your belongings intact and all those special little items you’ve secreted about yourself in the hope the authorities won’t go searching for them, you need to know what your gatekeepers really want. There are as many desires as there are guards to a gate, and the only way to know which one is the most appropriate is to find a good vantage point, pull up a piece of ground, and watch a while.
It is said that the dead are infinitely patient, although it is usually said by the living, and how would they know? Perhaps they are, but only if they have nowhere to be, and nothing to be running from. Marius knew how to be patient. It was part of his craft. Even so, the hours chafed. It was mid-morning when he took his seat. By the time those passing him drew lunches from capes and carts and settled in to eat, his eyes were itching. Still he sat, eyes fixed upon the gate ahead. Carts arrived, arguments took place, and tolls were handed over. Marius paid no attention to them. What was important to him came afterwards, once each supplicant had passed through the gate and the guards were left with whatever bounty they had taken. He watched as lunch came and went, and the afternoon was spent one trudging step after another, one petulant transaction upon the next. The sun began its lazy descent behind the spires and towers of the city, and still he did not move. Shadows became puddles of black, then pools, then one large ocean that stretched from city to hill and up into the sky. The city bells rang for day’s end, then final prayer. Torches were lit along the final approach to the city, and over each gate along the wall, and still Marius sat unmoving. On the road around him, groups of travellers, deciding that one more night could stand between them and the attempt to find lodgings, drew their carts to the edge of the road and climbed inside, or nestled in whatever hollow they could find in the gloom, and drew cloaks over their faces. Marius watched a final few enter the city, and then, though the gates still stood open to receive guests, he watched the guards make ready for the long, empty hours of the night. Only then, when it was clear to him what by the men at the gates prized most dearly, did he allow himself a small laugh. He stood, and listened to the mumbling crowd along the road. Then he set off into the deep darkness, away from the campfires, to make ready.
It is commonly believed that an army marches on its stomach, like some million-headed snail. Marius had been in an army, once, for about six weeks. Long enough to learn the whereabouts of the regimental pay supplies, and separate it those who expected to be paid. He had learned many things during that time, chief amongst them being how far into the mountains he needed to run before he was safe from execution. But he also knew that it is not the stomach which is the most important aspect of a soldier’s existence. Any spear carrier with decent enough cunning and a sympathetic Sergeant can find a meal. What a soldier truly prizes, and considers the greatest skill to be acquired, is sleep. Not sleep as you and I understand it, in a bed, perhaps even in our own homestead, with a cuddly wife or acrobatic mistress besides us. But sleep in the rain, sleep on a mountain pass with hateful foreigners in the rocks above and a two hundred foot fall below, sleep while the legs still march and the ears still hear orders. Sleep, standing at an open gate with a rich, under-defended city at your back. Sleep, undiscovered.
A Sergeant may be sympathetic to many things, but sleeping on duty will never be one of them.
An hour after Marius left his position on the hillock above the final approach he shuffled the last few steps to the mouth of the city gate.
Twenty minutes amongst sleeping travelers had transformed him. Calfskin gloves covered his hands, and the worn-out shoes he had been wearing since the turn of the year were gone, replaced by a pair of sturdy leather hiking boots that looked as if they had only just embarked upon their first journey. His travel-worn clothes, and more importantly, the nature of his features, lay hidden deep in the folds of a hooded oilskin cape. A thick knobkerrie completed the ensemble, and Marius leant upon it as if it were a cane, surveying the hooded eyes of the guards. He suppressed a smile. Nobody likes being disturbed from dozing, particularly if they’re being disturbed in order to work.
“Gate’s closed for the evening.”
“Looks open to me,” Behind the guards, two wooden doors, twice the height of a man, thick and unadorned and of rough construction, stood open. A corridor the thickness of the wall above, perhaps ten feet in all, led into a short square. Marius could see an open hole in the roof of the corridor. Breach the doors, and the pot that undoubtedly stood above them could pour boiling oil directly onto you before you made the open plaza. Nasty stuff, but a city will do whatever it can to protect the dignity of its Gods-fearing mothers and pure, virgin daughters, even if nobody can remember having met one. He tilted his head to indicate the open passage, grunting slightly as he did so, and leaned further onto his support, shuffling forward a step in the process.
“I said it’s closed, old man.” The guards looked at each other over the top of Marius’ head. “That is, unless you can pay the toll.”
This time, Marius couldn’t help but grin. “Oh, yes. And what that might be?”
“Well,” the older, heavier guard said, resting his hands on his hips and squaring himself up between Marius and the doorway. “That all depends on what you’ve got, doesn’t it?”
Some things never fail, Marius thought. The old teach the young all the mistakes they’ve spent years perfecting, the strong never stop to look closely at the weak, and the prepared always vanquish the stupid.
“Got?” he replied, cheerily. “Oh, lads, I haven’t got a blessed thing.”
“Oh, dear,” the older guard said. “Oh, dear, oh dear. You hear that Jeltho? Not a thing, he says.”
“Yeah, Ej, not a thing.” The younger fellow laughed, a thick, hopeful sound.
“I find that hard to believe, don’t you, Jeltho?”
“Yeah, Ej, yeah.”
Big Ej stepped forward, looming over Marius. “I wonder if you’re not trying to hold out on us, old man. I wonder if I’d not be better off searching you for contraband, and see just what you’re hiding.”
“Is Sergeant Olling still Patrol Master of these gates?” Marius asked softly. Ej stopped, and glanced at his young offsider. “Only, I remember him being Patrol Master when I was in the Guard.”
Ej leaned back, and narrowed his gaze. “What about it?”
Marius waved his hand airily. “Oh, it’s nothing, really. It’s just, I can’t believe old Olling would be in charge and tolerate any, well, tithing, shall we say?”
The two soldiers shared another glance, and Marius pressed harder into the silence. “Does he know about the Maria Hole yet?”
“Oh, you know, the Maria Hole. Down the wall there, twenty feet or so? Base of the wall, hole like the shape of old Maria Fellaini’s front entrance? I don’t suppose you remember old Maria. Too young, you are. But oh, when she danced the peekaboo, a strong man would have to see the doctor, get a salve to help with the bruises, you know what I mean, hey?” Marius chuckled. “But I can’t believe old Olling’s in charge, and one of you isn’t down there having a kip, out of sight, in the warm. Must be someone else, now.”
The silence between the two men deepened. Marius waited, head tilted, watching their uncertainty with a smile. Slowly, without talking, the guards reached the right decision, as he knew they would.
“You served?” Ej asked.
“Oh, yes. Was here for the Whores Uprising. That was a weekend, let me tell you.”
Ej nodded. “What’s your name, brother?”
It was all Marius could do not to cackle. “Ebbel. Ebbel Samming. Sorry I don’t have anything to offer a former brother in arms. Should have known better. You have a good night, lads.” He turned his back to the gate, began to take a shuffling step away.
“Wait on, now.”
There was a hurried exchange of whispers. When Marius turned back, young Jeltho was absent, but the sound of rapidly moving footsteps could be heard, heading off down the outside of the wall.
“No charge for a brother in arms,’” Ej said. “You go on in. You’ve earned the right.”
“Of course,” Ej said. “Only… if you do catch up with the Patrol Master….”
“When did he last stand at a gate, hey?” Marius shuffled forward, leaned into Ej so that they stood, shoulder pressed to shoulder. He patted the bigger man on the arm. “I’m not one to rat out a brother guardsman, my friend. You have a good night.”
“You too, Ebbel.” They parted and Marius limped through the gateway. When he was ten feet or so past the gate, Ej called out.
Marius froze. He turned slowly, every muscle in his body preparing for flight. “Yes?”
“Try the Mandrake Root. Tell Dettsie I sent you. They’ll have a room for you.”
Marius waved the knobkerrie in salutation. “Thank you, friend. Thank you.”
He shuffled away as fast as his charade would allow. As soon as he rounded the first corner he dispensed with the knobkerrie, and the limp, and began to stride down through a maze of interconnecting alleyways away from the gate. He had spent a time in the Borgho City guard, or at least, as their prisoner. And there was a hole down the wall from the Southern gate, but it neither resembled nor smelled like anyone’s front entrance. It was, however, the reason he wasn’t still under the Guard’s stewardship. It had taken him three months to become trustee of the gaolers’ toilets, and another week to tunnel through the accumulated shit of the city’s sump holes. There wasn’t a bath strong enough to help those two guards tonight.
And, he thought, patting his breeches pocket, Gods help ‘brother’ Ej if he mentioned to anyone that he’d just been speaking to his old companion Ebbel Samming. At least, God help him if he mentioned it to anyone who knew how to curse in Feltish. There are worse insults, but it takes one man to mouth them and another to mime the actions. An open doorway beckoned, and Marius ducked into it, taking a moment to transfer Ej’s coin purse from his breeches to a hidden pocket sewn into the lining of his jerkin. At least three Riner in ‘tolls’, judging by the weight. Enough to start the evening.
Out in the street again, Marius took a moment to get his bearings, before choosing a side lane and setting off at a quick clip. The Mandrake’s Root was a soldier’s haunt, a sturdy old building in the backstreets of the merchant’s quarter: close enough to the food stalls and the prostitutes to be convenient but far enough from the foot traffic for a bit of peace and quiet, so that no casual passerby would interrupt the soldiers in their drinking, and no local would make the detour because they knew better. It was the perfect place for a former soldier to rest, have a tankard or two, and catch up on the gossip and rumour that made up the majority of a serviceman’s conversational skill set. From where he was, Marius estimated it to be no more than a dozen streets to the East. He set his back towards it and headed towards the docks.
Despite the hour, the streets were packed. Like all harbor cities, Borgho never really closed down. Come the night, it merely swapped on set of merchants for another, one form of trade for the next, one class of clientele for the lower. There may be less velvet in the clothing, and the manners may be easier to understand, but the transactions were no less urgent than those conducted in daylight, and the streets no less vibrant with the movements of a big city at work. The streets themselves changed character. Where Marius had entered, they were reasonably broad—enough room to turn a cart, at least—and the buildings that flanked them were white painted and open-fronted, a hearty ‘hello’ to the travelers who entered. But turn left and start moving down the hill towards the docks and the true nature of the city exerted itself. The streets became narrower, more winding; the buildings leaned in more, cutting the sunlight off before it could illuminate the dirt and graffiti that made up the city’s natural colouring. Signs were smaller, the writing upon them more crabbed, the spelling simpler and more often incorrect. Even the language changed. Up high, the Scorban was clear cut and elegant, and words of as many as four syllables could be heard through poured-glass windows by anyone who crouched outside them at night. Down here, though, all languages intertwined in a dance of commerce and aggression, a patois that welcomed all comers and gave each one the opportunity to be dunned in the pidgin of their choice. The world was a darker, dirtier, more openly dishonest place. Marius felt perfectly at home.
He moved along the cobbles with the grace of one who had been born to the streets. In truth, he had spent so long plying his trade amongst the night crawlers of cities from the Bone Coast to the Western Spires that it was part of his nature now. It was the daylight hours where he needed to remind himself of the mores and rituals. Only during the day could he not afford the luxury of relaxing as he walked, and merely taking in the sights, the smells, and the sounds of the city. Here, surrounded by the filth of window-emptied chamber pots, with darkened faces peering out of equally dark alleyways, and with the press of unwashed bodies nudging him and hustling him off his natural stride, he was as relaxed as he had been since before the Jezel Valley had called to him, and Marius Helles had become Marius the Dead. At the thought of his current predicament he shook his head, and lengthened his stride. He had things to do. There would be time for sightseeing later.
It was no more than fifteen minutes walk, to someone who knew the back streets and cut-throughs as intimately as Marius, between the Southern Gate and The Hauled Keel, nestled between a dozen identical taverns at the drinking end of the Borgho Docks. Sailors resemble guardsmen in any number of ways, except that they don’t give a damn who else drinks in their pubs, and their gossip has less to do with who’s rumpling whose bed sheets and more to do with who has the run of the waves, and who went out and never came back. In that time, Marius’ pockets were dipped no less than eight occasions, for a net loss of a dozen rivets, six flat stones, and two small bags of what he hoped were toy knucklebones. Sightseeing he may have been, but only with one eye. Thanks to those same dippers, however, he arrived at the tavern somewhere in the region of nine riner to the good. It would have been more, but dipping a dipper is tricky enough without the impediment of gloves, or dead fingers. Anyone can make a living in the big city, assuming you’re quick enough. The only way to make a living in Borgho City is not to get caught, or if you’re going to get caught, to only get caught by the right type of people.
Marius heard the taverns long before he saw them. The docks are a noisy, twenty four hours in the day, area. But the taverns seem to find an extra hour, and an extra layer of noise, as if those who work outside desire, rather than respite from the endless walls of sound around them, something to block the sounds out. Fights are rare in these pubs- the men have spent all day proving how hard they are. They’ve no need to do it in their down time, and besides, there are better ways to go about it than something that might result in spilled booze. The Hauled Keel’s Krehmlager is one of the best. Hard men drink Krehmlager. The suicidal drink two.
Marius pushed open the door and found a booth towards the back of the smoky, badly lit room, just as it was being emptied of drunken, snoozing bodies. He slid in, and signaled to a passing serving girl.
“A tankard of Krehmlager, a spice roll, and something for your break.” He laid a tenpenny on the table. “If there’s any left, save it for your old age.” Serving girls may not make the world go round, but they give it a much more interesting shape. The girl smiled her thanks and left to fill his order. The beer would come from the heavy end of the barrel, and the roll would be fresh.
She returned in short order and laid his repast before him. Marius placed another coin on the table. “Is Keth in tonight?”
The serving girl eyed him warily, taking in his gloves, the cape and hood that covered all features. “You been away, sir?”
“She, uh…” the girl looked over her shoulder. “She doesn’t do that anymore.”
Marius snorted. “I know. Just tell her… tell her Marius is here, could you?” He pushed the coin forward. The girl took it, and hurried away. Marius stared at his beer until he felt a body slip into the booth opposite him.
“You wanted to speak to me, sir?” Marius closed his eyes for a moment. Keth’s voice was as warm as he remembered it: mulled wine, with just a hint of a massage later in the evening. He kept his head bowed, and indicated the tankard.
“I want to drink it, but I’m afraid of what’ll happen.”
Keth laughed, and it felt like a long, slow swallow of something wonderful on a cold evening. “You might be right, Mister. Krehmlager isn’t for the foolhardy. I’ve seen bigger men than you made into crying children after a couple of tankards of that stuff, no offence.”
That was an understatement. The Hauled Keel’s special brew had a reputation that far exceeded that of the city’ heroes, and every awestruck whisper of it was deserved. Marius had seen grizzled veterans swearing they could see the Gods, and not the right ones, after no more than three tankards. He himself could usually manage no more than half a draught before he either fell asleep or ran for the nearest exit to be violently sick. He stared at the mug in front of him.
“I’m worried about what’ll happen. If it’ll have any effect. If I’ll even taste it. What’ll I do if it doesn’t, Keth? What if I don’t?”
A tiny line of puzzlement dragged down the inside corners of Keth’s eyebrows.
“There’s only one way to find out, Mister. If you’ll excuse me, I thought Senni mentioned an old friend’s name, but I think she was…”
“It’s me, Keth.”
“Me. Marius. It’s me.”
Keth stared at him, doubt in every angle. “You’re Marius?”
Marius nodded. “Back of the left knee, about half an inch up, never fails.”
“Oh, God.” Keth sank into her seat, stretched out her arms across the table. Marius reached out gloved hands, and she squeezed them between her strong, warm fingers. “Marius. What happened?”
“You don’t want to see the worst of it, Keth. I’m in real trouble this time.”
“What is it, sweetheart? Is it fire? I’ve seen men after fires. Pox? Spear wounds? Come on, sweetie, I’ve seen it all. You can show me.” With a quick movement she slipped the fingers of her left hand down to the end of his glove and tensed. Marius, realizing what she was about to do, pulled away. It was too late. His arm came backwards. The glove stayed where it was. He and Keth stared down at his exposed hand. Keth swallowed.
“Pull your hood back, sweetheart, won’t you?”
“Just do it, Marius. Please?”
Slowly, Marius reached up and touched the hem of his cloak.
“Please, Keth. I don’t want you to scream, or be frightened. I don’t want you see this.”
“I’ll be fine, Marius. Please. I have to see it.”
Marius pulled back his hood. Keth didn’t scream, or faint, or beg him to stop. She simply took in his features, her face a mask of blankness, for five or six heartbeats. When she spoke, her voice was very careful, and calm, and very neutral, as if she was speaking to an intruder with a knife.
“Okay, then. Perhaps you’d better put it back over yourself, love. Just in case. Best not scare the customers.”
Marius replaced it, and sank further into his seat. They sat that way for long moments. Marius peered at Keth from the safety of the hood’s depths. She stared at him, her teeth working hard against her upper lip, then her lower, and back to her upper. Finally she reached across, pulled the tankard towards her, and took a moderate sized pull.
“So,” she said when she had recovered her breath.
“This is why you haven’t come back before now?” She giggled, then cut it off quickly. They could both hear the panic.
“I almost had it,” Marius said, his gaze falling to the table. “One more time, maybe two.” He shrugged, stared at the table. “Maybe three. Then I’d have enough, and I’d be back, and we’d have enough, and it would all be…” he trailed off, waved his hand limply at nowhere in particular.
“No, you wouldn’t.” Keth smiled sadly. “That’s not you, is it? We’ve learned that.”
“No. I guess not.”
“It’s bad, though, isn’t it? Really bad.”
“Keth.” Marius held up his hand, turned it so she could see both sides. “I think I’m dead.” He picked up the glove and put it back on. “I need to get away.”
“Sweetheart, how can you be dead? You’re walking, and talking, and…” she stared at him, stared at his chest. “Oh, God. You’re not breathing, are you?”
“I need passage, Keth. On a boat, a good sized one, headed to the Far Isles. Something big enough that I can rent a cabin with some privacy.”
“You know who’s in and who’s going out. You can find me one. Here.” He reached into his pockets, pulled out his remaining coins. “Take it. That’ll be enough to reserve the cabin. Get a price. I’ll have the rest by the time we ship.”
“Shit.” Keth swept the money into her skirt, fumbled about under the table for a moment, then stood, the money nowhere in sight. “What are you trying to do, waving money about like that? Trying to get us both…” She stopped, raised her hand to her mouth. “I’ll… I’ll try.” She turned away from him, took a step, turned back. “Have you a place?”
“No. Not yet. I…”
“I’m on the second floor. At the end.” She fumbled in her apron, withdrew a key and tossed it on the table. “I’ll be off in a couple of hours.” She nodded at the tankard and the roll. “Take those. No sense in letting them go to waste. I’ve got… I’ve got to go.” She backed away, and pushed through the crowd. In a moment, she was lost to view.
Marius stared at the spot where she had been for countless seconds. Then, slowly, he reached out and gathered the key. He stood, took the food from the table, and sidled towards the staircase at the back of the room.
At the top of the stairs, a short mezzanine led into a dark, sweat-smelling corridor that ran the length of the building. Sconces lined the walls between anonymous, un-numbered doors. Most of them bore scorch marks above, where drunken tenants had stumbled and spat, or worse, upon them. Sailors, especially drunk ones, aren’t picky about their surroundings. A pillow to rest their head and a pot to piss on the floor next to was all they generally required, and as long as they stayed sober enough to tell the difference, they were happy. Marius had seen worse dockside rents-- at least these had their doors on. Anyone who cared to complain about the dirt and the generally seedy air was either a stranger or still sober.
There was one exception. At the far end, directly facing him, a white-painted door with lit sconces at either side stood out like a princess in workhouse. A garland of dried flowers hung from a nail, and a circle of spotlessness surrounded it where the walls had been washed and the wooden floor swept free of dirt and dead insects. Marius snorted in recognition and strode towards it. The key fit on first attempt, and he noted the absence of scratch marks around the hole. Whatever else may be said about them, the clientele of the Hauled Keel had obviously paid attention when warned to leave this room alone. The door swung inwards on oiled hinges, and Marius stepped through.
Inside, the room was clean, but little more. Marius closed the door behind him, made his way across to the dim outline of the bed, and found a lamp sitting upon a table next to it, a pack of lucifers at its base. He lit the lamp, then picked it up and used it to light three others at strategic points around the room. Once a modicum of visibility had been established he made his way to the single chair beneath the window, move the neatly folded clothes onto the bed, and sat, throwing back his hood and running his fingers through his hair in relief. Only then did he take the time to thoroughly examine his surroundings.
Keth had tried, Marius could see that. Somewhere along the line, for whatever reason, she had decided to really try to make a home here. Nothing around him was new. The single bed sagged in the middle, and the wood frame was bowed and warped from years, maybe decades, of water-rich air. But she had piled pillows and blankets upon it, and perhaps the thickness of the padding made up for the shape. Those blankets, and the clothes he had moved from the chair, were clean. Perhaps not freshly laundered, but certainly sooner than the once-a-fortnight swish through a bathtub of cold water that most bedding received in an establishment like the Hauled Keel. The trunk at the bed’s end had been old and battered when Marius had given it to her, but the clasp and hinges were new, and the designs she had painted upon it, flowers and berries on a vine, had been carefully applied. The tiny table and mirror she used as a dresser were uneven, one leg straightened up with a piece of wood, and the mirror itself had a long stain down one side where the silvered backing had tarnished. But everything was neat, and orderly, and such toiletries that lay alongside the metal trough in the corner were newly purchased. More dried flowers, siblings to the bunch on the front door, were nailed to the walls, and from somewhere, the Gods only knew where, she had found a small painting of the Berries Veldt and hung it above the bed head. The overall impression was of care, and a determination to feel at home, and the whole thing saddened Marius more than he cared to admit. He felt out of place in his stolen cape and rotting skin, like leaves blown onto a freshly swept floor, just waiting for someone to notice and push him back out into the gutter. He got up, placed the tankard and spiced roll on the lid of the trunk, and returned to his seat to wait.
Taverns like the Hauled Keel never really close. At best, there is a short gap between one shift of clients reeling away to their beds or the street, and the next lot coming in from their boats or shift at the workhouses and piers to eat, drink, and raise the right level of noise to help forget their lives. The serving girls work long hours, longer than their customers can drink. Then they have to clean up afterwards, sweep away the butt ends and pipe tailings, mop up the spilled beer and vomit, push the last complaining drunkard out the door and point him in the direction of wherever he’s calling home that day. Only then can the takings be tallied, wages apportioned, and each girl find her own way to bed. Keth was luckier than most-- a flight of stairs is a short journey compared to many. Even so, when she pushed the door open and slipped inside, the lines of her body were heavy with fatigue. Marius watched as she slipped off her slippers and knelt to splash water over her face. She glanced at him and he, taking the hint, vacated the chair.
“I spoke to a fellow just in off a trader,” she said, settling into the chair and sighing. “It looks like the very job for you. Be a love.” She pointed to the food on the trunk. Marius retrieved it and passed it over. She bit into the roll, followed it with a sip of krehmlager, and sighed. “Fresh.”
“What did he say?”
“He’s serving on a 50 ton barque called the Minerva. They’ve been docked three days, taking on supplies for a run to the Faraway Islands. Reckons they’ll be out three, maybe four months, then as many back, trading iron and cloth for the usual stuff. They’re waiting for the right tides, but he’s due back on board in the morning so he thinks they’ll be off in no more than two days. They’ve got cabins.”
“Are you fussy, now?”
Marius shrugged, abashed. “No, of course not. Just so long as they’re private.”
“They will be. As private as you’ll get on a working boat.” She bit into the roll again and swallowed. “When did you last eat?”
“I don’t need to eat.”
She looked at him for several seconds. “I don’t need to cuddle, but it’s still nice every now and again. Have some.” She offered the tankard and roll. Marius hesitated, and she shook them slightly. “To be polite, if nothing else.”
Marius took them, bit into the roll and followed it with a mouthful of the lager. They tasted... nice. He blinked, swallowed, and took another bite and drink.
“Hey! Save some for a worker.”
Marius twitched, then handed them back. “Sorry. I... I don’t understand. I could taste them.”
“Don’t look at me. It’s your story.” Keth eyed him up and down. “It’s done you the world of good. You look better. Not, you know, you, but better.”
Marius snuck a glance in the mirror. Keth was right. He did look better. Not himself, no, not alive, but less... deadish. A hint of animation around the eyes, maybe. A touch of colour at the edges of his lips. “I don’t understand this at all. Gerd said...”
“A... companion. Guard dog, more like.”
“And is he dead?”
Marius smiled. The face in the mirror drew its lips up into a rictus. “We’re everywhere, don’t you know?” He grabbed the tankard from Keth, took a swallow, handed it back. “So what now?”
“Well it’s only a one person bed.”
“That never bothered you before.”
“You were a person.”
He snorted. “Fair point. I don’t need to sleep...” He caught himself. “Or cuddle.”
Keth laughed, then levered herself out of the chair. “Well, I need to wash and lie down. You can go out into the hallway for five minutes or you can promise not to look. What will it be?”
Marius placed his hand over the still skin of his heart. “I promise.”
“Liar.” She smiled and knelt down in front of the pail. “Go on. Turn around.”
Marius turned and faced the simple drapes over the window. There was a slither of clothing, and then splashing as Keth performed her ablutions. Marius resisted peeking, and tried not to remember how she looked naked. Not that such thoughts would do him any good now, anyway, he thought. Better to stay away from them. He did not need to add a lack of reaction to a naked woman to all the other signs of his continuing death.
“Tell me about this place,” he said in order to give himself something else to think about. “Why all the effort?”
“I know that. But why go to all this trouble? Surely when you move on...”
“No,” Marius heard Keth climb into bed, and risked turning round. Only her face was in view, her long hair brushed out of its braids and spread out over the blankets. If Marius could have cried, the lack of stirring in his groin would have driven him to it. “You’re not listening. It’s mine. I own this room.”
“I bought it from the Waldens six months ago. They’re the managers. Everything in here.” A long white arm emerged from the beneath the sheet and waved at their surroundings. Marius stared at the arm, and waited for a sign from below. Nothing. God damn it. “I own it.”
“What? You mean forever?”
Keth giggled. “Maybe. Or maybe not. I don’t know.”
“But why...?” Marius looked around at the dismal collection of furniture, the sad little decorations, the desperate attempts to add dignity to what looked like nothing more than a collection of cast offs.
“Because I can.” Keth sat up, a flush of anger spreading across her skin. The blanket fell away, exposing her body down to the waist, but Keth was too angry to notice. Marius did, and almost smiled. Not so dead after all. But Keth was biting out words, and he realised there was nothing to smile about at all. “Do you have any idea how hard it’s been to get all this? To convince someone to sell me even this lot, never mind this fucking room? Because I’m a woman, in this city? Do you have any concept how precious it is to know I can finish my shift and come home, safely, to somewhere that belongs to me? A woman, in this city, owning anything? Do you have any idea how hard I’ve worked for this? Don’t you dare look down on what I have, Marius Helles.”
“But... you could have...”
“Could have what?” Keth glanced down at how she was sitting, and gathered the blankets about her. “What, Marius? Waited for you? Been kept by you? How was that ever going to work?”
“But I...” Marius turned away from her in confusion, saw the tankard and picked it up. “I could have given you better than this.”
“God damn it, you don’t understand a thing. It’s not the having, Marius. It’s not even the money. Look at all this. Look at it.” She gathered up a handful of blanket and shook it at him. “I own this. It doesn’t matter what it looks like, or that it’s not made of velvet or smells of lavender. It’s mine. I have it, and nobody can take it away from me. Everything in this room. This room. Do you know how many women own even a room in this city, for themselves? It’s not about money, Marius. It never was. I can work, and own things, and have my own life.”
Marius stared at her, saw the pride in her eyes, and the anger. And the words came before he had time to regret them, and realise what he was placing between them.
“How much of it did you earn on your back?”
She stared at him for longer than he could bear. When she spoke, she did so quietly, and her voice was the deadest thing in the room.
“Get out, Marius. Get out of my home.”
There was nothing he could say. Marius walked to the door, opened it, and made sure to shut it behind him. He stood a moment, waiting. She hadn’t even cried. Marius hung his head and walked back down the hallway, away from Keth. He was at the top of the stairs before he remembered to pull his hood back over his head. It was only when it struck him on the face that he discovered he was still holding the tankard.
“Ow.” He rubbed the where the tankard had hit, looked at it, and then took a long, deep draught. There was no taste at all. Marius stared at it, then let it drop to the floor. “Fuck.”
He was halfway down the steps before he doubled over and threw up.